To Empathize is to Civilize

Yesterday I touched very briefly on the matter of empathy and I would like to take a short walk with you down that road to discover the influence this fundamental human capacity has on your life and the world at large.

Recent discoveries in the fields of neuropsychology, brain science and childhood development show that we are soft-wired with what are called mirror neurons. These special neurons allow us to experience the plight, joy, frenzy, fear or delight of others as if those experiences were our own.

There is growing scientific evidence and understanding of this mechanism and we are beginning to understand that a statement like “I feel your pain” is much more than just a kind gesture. It is a statement of fact. You really can perceive and feel what others are feeling and experiencing as if their experience was your own.

Author and political advisor Jeremy Rifkin gave an interesting talk called “Empathetic Civilisation.” This RSA Animate presentation describes Rifkin’s interpretation of this growing body of research in a fascinating format and his conclusions are debatable yet intriguing. What does our future hold?

One of the most fundamental motivations driving virtually all human beings is the longing to belong. Man is a gregarious creature. I remember speaking a number of years ago with a fellow about my age who had embraced the “punk” movement. He prided himself on the idea of expressing his individuality, of being different and of testing the boundaries of societal norms.

I saw him later that week with his friends and I had to chuckle to myself as I had a hard time distinguishing him in all of his uniqueness from his friends in all of theirs! While the mohawks from one person to the next were a bit different, they loved the same music, held the same social views, disdained the same norms, etc. In short, they found others with whom they could belong comfortably.

Empathy is the quality that facilitates belonging. It is, as Rifkin notes, the force that permits civilization. As selfhood increases, so too does empathic development. We all share various levels and depths of relatedness to one another, but today I would like to ask if you feel you are using that powerful mechanism wisely.

Some people are afraid of their capacity to “feel” others and do their level best to shut it off. Others fail to differentiate between the feelings of others and their own feelings. They have a permanent seat on the emotional roller-coaster and like babies in a nursery compelled neurologically to cry when they her another baby cry, they have no idea why they are feeling what they are feeling!

You can and should feel empathetically those around you but you are wise to develop the ability to handle those feelings maturely and with equanimity. Empathy provides you with the vision to work effectively with others. It ensures that you won’t deal with others like a bull in a china shop and like a flashlight it allows you to navigate the often dark and tortuous pathways of human consciousness.

Where do you start? First, by taking a moment before you react to what your feeling. Give you brain a second to catch up. Ask yourself, is this my experience or that of another? If it is not yours, be very careful about giving it too much weight in your heart and mind, instead, look to offer what is called in homeopathy, the “sarcode” (the imprint of healthy tissue), in relation to that feeling. Put simply, ask yourself “how can I most creatively handle this feeling at this time?”

The trouble comes when you don’t stop to think, when you react rather than acting proactively. You almost always have more time to strategize than you think. Resist the temptation to “rush in where angels fear to tread.”

We are feeling creatures. Feeling is vitally important. It is what connects us invisibly and what moves us deeply. Realizing that we are soft-wired to experience one another’s feelings, it behooves us to use this capacity wisely, carefully and for the betterment of humanity.

6 thoughts on “To Empathize is to Civilize

  1. Colin

    This is an incredible post, thank you! I am one of the ones that in the past has “turned off” my empathetic feelings. I lately have been working diligently to re-awaken them, and I have found it makes a world of difference in my interactions with others. I take that second to consider what their motivations are, and how they might be feeling, and that helps guide me in a much more sophisticated way.


  2. Joshua

    A little more…..
    It seems clear to me now that we need to take specific care in relation to that which we “CHOOSE” to empathize with. Misery loves company comes to mind… because we so desperately want to belong often we blindly belong to that which would destroy us, because we have empathized with whatever that might be.
    I for on will review my decisions in that regard taking care to allow it all to be up for review today, wouldn’t want to be blindly following the blind!!!!


  3. Joshua

    It is enlightening to realize that most of what we perceive in our hearts does not belong specifically to us, rather to all those to whom we are connected….that being said true self-less service to others would definitely involve the right “Assistance” in directing or clarifying those Perceived Impulses as they “Come up” on behalf of others. The leverage truly is contained in the invisible.
    Consciously engaging in offering empathy to the world today will be fun!!


  4. Reina

    I remember as a child how naturally “empathy” came to me. It holds with it very vivid memories of connecting with other children and often “feeling” what it must feel like to be them, but yet being able to seperate it out without even as much as a thought. I realize as I look back that somewhere in my journey to adulthood, that was ” turned off” or better said, buried. I can see how we can become confused and like a ship without a rudder, tossed about emotionally when we fail to recognize our human gift of “empathy”. In a world of such chaos, if we can ultimately reconnect with this on a conscious level, there can be real progress and healing between nations. Ii appreciate your reminder to stop, question what is being felt, and move based on balanced thought relative to those feelings. Let’s begin to use our gifts as they were designed. Thank you!


  5. Isabelle Kearney

    We have all been given the ability to think and feel, but have seldom been trained on how to take advantage of those abilities.

    I appreciate your thoughtful instruction on how we can begin to develop our capabilities. It’s good to know that we can safely increase our ability to feel and perceive as long as we also increase our ability to think and observe, which will help us make the right choices every moment.


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